The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed a defendant’s rape conviction after concluding the trial judge had erroneously allowed the prosecutor to elicit testimony that the defendant had confessed his guilt to his wife. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Garcia.
The alleged victim was the defendant’s 19-year-old stepdaughter. The trial evidence established that after arguing with her boyfriend, the alleged victim asked her mother (the defendant’s wife) if she could sleep at her apartment. Although she was out of town, the mother agreed. The alleged victim went to the apartment, talked briefly to the defendant, and went to sleep in a spare bedroom. Later that night, the alleged victim woke up and said she found the defendant lying naked next to her. According to the alleged victim, the defendant had his hand in her vagina. The defendant then apologized to the alleged victim and fled the room. The alleged victim left the apartment shortly thereafter. The defendant was indicted by the Essex County grand jury and tried for rape. After a superior court jury found him guilty, the defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.
The issue on appeal was whether the defendant’s alleged confession to his wife was properly admitted at his trial. According to the alleged victim, her mother reported the defendant said he was sorry for his actions and was so overtired that he thought the alleged victim was his wife. The mother denied the defendant made such a statement to her and the trial judge allowed the alleged victim to repeat the defendant’s alleged confession to the jury, reasoning it was proper impeachment evidence. The defense attorney objected to the introduction of the evidence at trial. The SJC began its analysis by pointing out a Massachusetts statute disqualifies spouses from testifying about private marital conversations. Even if both spouses want the content of the conversation to be admitted at trial, Massachusetts law prohibits its introduction. The question for the Court was whether disclosure of a private marital conversation to a third party (in this case, the alleged victim) eliminated the disqualification. The Court ruled even if a marital conversation is repeated to a third party, it still may not be admitted at a trial. Therefore, the defendant’s alleged statement to his wife (which both the defendant and his wife denied ever took place) should not have been introduced to the jury. Because an alleged confession is such powerful evidence, the Supreme Judicial Court held it likely contributed to the jury’s decision to convict and accordingly reversed the conviction.
Rape cases are often difficult for the Commonwealth to prove. In a case like this, where there is no forensic evidence such as DNA, the prosecutor is forced to ask the jury to find the defendant guilty based entirely on the testimony of the alleged victim. That’s often a difficult request, as any evidence that the complaining witness had a motive to lie will constitute reasonable doubt. The SJC was correct in this case to conclude the defendant’s supposed confession was significant evidence relied upon by the jury to convict.